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Making the Grade: When Do Kids Deserve A's?

Across the country, schools and parents are engaged in a great debate: Should kids get A's for doing their homework, being on time and all-around good behavior? Or should top marks go only to students who master the material?
Report card illustration
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Illustration by William Duke

When Vicki Madden of New York City saw her son Sam's fifth-grade report card, she was dismayed—and more than a little confused. Last year Sam had received 3's and 4's (on a scale of 1 to 4) in social studies, which was one of his favorite classes. But this time, despite getting 3's in the subcategories for knowledge and analytic skills, Sam's overall grade was a 1. "I asked myself how he could master the material and still fail," says Vicki, 51, a social studies teacher at a school for 6th- to 12th-graders. "It didn't make sense."

After talking with Sam, who was equally perplexed, Vicki arranged a meeting with his teacher, who explained that he was doing fine on tests, but performing poorly when it came to completing take-home assignments. "She made it clear she was grading him for his work habits—not on what he knew about the subject," says Vicki. She and husband Jim, 48, a painter, started planning how to help Sam turn things around. A weekly homework checklist—what was assigned, what was completed and when—was e-mailed back and forth between the Maddens and Sam's teacher. Vicki and Jim agreed to monitor their son more closely, and question him if something was turned in late or incomplete—or not at all.

Their efforts paid off: On his next report card, Sam's overall social studies grade was a 3. "It was a huge relief," says Vicki. Still, she wishes that his school's grading system were different. "Teachers have so many students and so little time to communicate. It would be better if report cards were more direct and clear about kids' academic progress," she says. "The way it is now is a mystery, and it took digging and valuable time for us to identify Sam's problem and fix it."

Around the country, parents of elementary, middle and high school students are going through a similar guessing game. Sometimes kids get poor marks because they simply aren't at the level they should be. But just as often, who gets an A, or an F, has pretty much been left to the discretion of the classroom teacher. It may come as a surprise, but few schools keep track of how instructors hand out grades or have tried to develop a standardized approach.

That may soon be changing. As states and school districts come under growing pressure from the federal government to provide detailed evidence on what kids are learning, how much and how quickly, they're also rethinking the way they assess students.

In recent years administrators and educators in New York, Maryland, Kentucky, Minnesota, California, Texas and Florida have implemented new formulas. According to education researchers, many more districts nationwide are launching grade-reform programs in middle and high schools. "We've been studying and thinking and talking—on school boards, in our classrooms and in our community—about these key questions," says Anita Davis, assistant superintendent of the Oldham County school district outside Louisville, Kentucky. "Who deserves high marks? What standards are we judging kids on? Most important, what goal are we trying to move students toward?"